2). DISTRICT CENTRE, JANAKPURI.
My oldest memory of the District Centre, a.k.a Janak Place, was the lines of workers I’d see, while rushing to catch my school bus every morning. Whether it was the chilling winds of winter or the dreaded summer heat, the workers moved like clock-work, carrying water bottles under their arms, determined to perform their morning bowel duties anywhere they found a spot in the vast white complex that stood abandoned, down the road from our house. It was no wonder then that the complex was referred to as ‘Potty Centre’, which had a few offices at the back, but lay invisible to our peripheral vision for a long time.
And then came McDonald’s! Before this, pizzas and burgers were still things we only dreamed of, unless an aunt or uncle visited from abroad and these dreams actually came alive. To have a McDonald’s open right next door became the second greatest thing to being alive. The Delhi Development Authority took over and cleaned up the ‘poopy’ mess, the buildings re-painted, the giant, yellow and red ‘M’ logo beckoning every passerby and suddenly, everyone flocked to fancy Janak Place, named after King Janak from the Ramayan, as if all roads led only there. ‘Opposite District Centre’ became THE landmark to my house and I beamed with pride when the kids at school recognised ‘the cool, new place’ in Janakpuri! The Vanilla McSwirl was the greatest attraction, not for its taste, but because it cost 5 bucks and parents didn’t mind buying a scoop to stop their whiny kids from ruining their evenings out. Young school boys and girls sat at McDonald’s for hours and hours over a single burger, blushing and batting their eyelids at each other, too nervous to speak. It was a known thing then, that if a boy ever asked you meet him at McDonald’s, it was absolutely, one hundred percent, a date.
The people of Janakpuri, and beyond, took to Janak Place like ants take to food or Apple fans take to the latest I-phone. It didn’t take very long for a Barista to open, followed by Music Land and Wordsworth. Pocket money, Birthday money. Diwali money, Christmas money, ANY money was locked away till you had enough to purchase the latest CD’s or the newest Harry Potter, factors that determined your existence on Earth and friendships at school. You could beg, borrow or steal, but at the end of the day, if someone had read a book before you, rest assured, you’d have to kill yourself to protect yourself from spoilers. There was a new restaurant every corner you turned and the food options blew our little minds! Toy-sellers Gopal Prasad Gupta and Rakesh Suri set up shop on opposite sides of McDonalds, spots they hold even today, 15 years later.
A Crafts Bazaar opened up in the centre of the complex, a local version of Dilli Haat and cheaper and while women shopped for hours, the kids were promptly given 100 rupees to play 10 games of their choice at the gaming arcade, with its colourful, electric mini cars and air-hockey tables. Janak Place soon got its first movie hall in 2004 and metro stations on either end and the world was never the same again.
I remember being floored by Bunty aur Babli, Bollywood’s very own ‘Bonny and Clyde’ and the first movie I watched at Satyam, planning to use similar tactics to take over the world with my brother. Things were moving fast and property rates in Janakpuri sky-rocketed over-night. This was a good time in the history of the locality.
The fantasy that was Janak Place quickly became a horror when it came into the spotlight due to a number of successful suicides, quickly earning the name ‘Suicide Towers’. Rakesh Suri saw four people die in front of him, young boys and girls who climbed to the 6th or 7th floor and jumped off. He remembers trying to save a girl who had jumped off the second floor, with not an injury on her, but died anyway. District Centre was in the news for all the wrong reasons, with people considering it haunted because of the several deaths that took place in a short time. Grills were installed on every floor with immediate effect, but the impact lasted for a couple of years, until the suicides were altogether forgotten. By this time, Janak Place was teeming with street children and their families, who were addicted to sniffing glue and begged for a toke of Korex correction glue over money. If things weren’t looking good, they became worse when Pacific Mall opened in Subhash Nagar, drawing all the crowds and leaving Janak Place an abandoned mess.
In my head, Janak Place is a fighter. When you google it, you’re faced with a ton of bad reviews about the place and I don’t blame the people. The place is a wasteland. Wordsworth, the book shop, was the first to go because, sadly, people don’t read enough and especially not today, when you have access to information and the latest e-books on your phone or computer. This was followed by Music Land, when the owners realised that the latest cassettes and CD’s weren’t flying off shelves anymore. The restaurants are mostly empty owing to food ordering apps. Gopal and Rakesh have resorted to setting up their mats, laden with toys, only in the evening and earn about 150-200 rupees a day. Ambika Pillai took her salon and ran, what seems like, a million years ago. McDonalds was in the midst of a massive lawsuit and had shut its doors on everyone for a while. But, with all of this backlash, the place still sees enough families on a Sunday afternoon, their little kids crowding the chocolate fountain stall or the tinier one’s in their remote operated mini-cars, banging into people on purpose. The most recent addition to the food stalls was the Kolkata puchka guy whose puchka game is on point, but dangerous if you’re brave enough to exceed two plates.
The goods at the Craft Bazaar are still beautiful and cheap, defeating the branded stores that are still holding on, lining the higher floors. The complex still houses a lot of smaller gadget repair shops, Xerox and printing places and trinket shops, tucked away at the back, hidden in plain sight. And you will still find the scores of couples, crouched beside one another on rusting benches, planning their futures. To everyone who lives or has ever lived in Janakpuri, though, District Centre a.k.a Janak Place, its tall, white towers covered in grime, will always be the “coolest place on Earth”.